Thailand's Not the Only Gem in Southeast Asia
Backpacking across Southeast Asia should be an experience of a lifetime. And when planning which countries to visit, why not look past Thailand's borders to three countries that still remain largely unspoilt: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Lying to the northeast of Thailand, the people of Laos are open and welcoming, and have a strongly developed sense of courtesy. You will find Buddhist temples (Wats) everywhere, and there are a plethora of wonderful monuments to visit, including the Sacred Stupa in the capital, Vientiane. Food is fresh and spicy, based on fish, buffalo and pork. There are organised treks to the mountains or forests, where you can visit remote ethnic villages, see hidden waterfalls or go bird watching. Laos's numerous rivers are perfect for kayaking. The best time to visit is between November and April, to avoid the rainy season.
Vietnam has two climate zones, which means in the north it can get very hot and humid with monsoons but in other areas it can be pleasantly cool. Similar to Laos, nearly three quarters of the country is covered by mountains and hills. It's host to 54 different ethnic communities, each with its own traditional heritage and cultural treasures. Ho Chi Min city is one of the top tourist destinations for its super array of architectural gems, including numerous pagodas, but it's also worth trekking to the hills to visit the ethnic villages too. You can hike, bike and kayak, or if you want a more leisurely experience, there are numerous cruises. As for food, do sample nem ran, which are fried rice rolls of minced pork, sea crab, vegetables and spices. For the full experience we'd recommend taking a guided tour.
In contrast to Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia's great plains cover most of the country, with a massive lake (Tonlé Sap) and the wide Mekong River running through it. Stilt villages are built on the banks. Naturally there are many different water sports available, including scuba diving. Interestingly, Cambodia still has a royal tradition with a king. Its rich culture goes back centuries and was heavily influenced by India. Another reason to visit Cambodia is that it promotes 'community-based eco-tourism' (CBET), where the inhabitants manage tourism and aim to minimise negative impacts on the environment. There are numerous eco-sites across Cambodia that are worth visiting to see wildlife and beautiful surroundings.
Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are epitomised by contrast: modern cities with technology, to the seemingly untouched ethnic hill people who weave for a living; heavy rains to temperate climate; large areas covered by mountains to vast plains with large lakes and rivers. Definitely worth adding to your itinerary.